What do you do when you’re a championship contender with no quarterback? If you’re the Houston Texans, you give up first-round picks this year and next to pick up Deshaun Watson, only to find you still don’t have a quarterback.
So goes the opinion of Deshaun’s detractors, anyway, and it’s not a surprise that they’re numerous and vocal; QB hype trains head down the collegiate track on a regular basis and one after another seems to get derailed in the pre-draft process. Besides, Watson is a QB who rushed a lot in college (192 rushing attempts in 2015 alone even when one strips out the 15 sacks that count as rushes in collegiate stats, and another 148 plus 17 sacks in 2016), which usually leads to refried “he can’t be a pro QB running like that” hot takes from people who’ve not watched a Green Bay Packers game this decade.
(When the QB in question is black, as Watson is, some of those hot takes come with a side of thinly disguised racism. Would Mitchell Trubisky have gained as much criticism for an unorthodox footwear selection as Watson did for this porcupine pair?)
One thing Watson unquestionably has going for him, that not even his worst critics can deny, is that he is a winner. In both of the seasons in which he was a full-time starter – the first of which came right after recovering from a torn ACL, to boot – Clemson made the National Championship. The second time around, in 2016, they won it. In those two title games – both against a historically good Alabama D – Watson threw and ran for a combined 941 yards with eight TDs (seven of them through the air) and just one pick, setting new records for passing yardage in a college championship game in both of those games.
He did that against a historically good Alabama D, just in case that message didn’t get through the first time.
So how come Watson was the third QB off the board in what wasn’t considered a great class at that position? Well, for a start, the concerns about him translating to the pro game aren’t entirely without foundation, as the Clemson spread offense doesn’t require much in the way of reading the whole field or making play calls in the huddle. Now, the NFL is a shotgun league as well these days (according to Football Outsiders, 68% of snaps in 2016 were taken from the shotgun or pistol), but there certainly is an adjustment involved on the playcalling side of things in particular. Perhaps Tom Savage will eat a few starts early in the year after all?
Secondly, while he ticked most boxes at the Combine, when it came to the radar gun test he certainly didn’t tick that box, coming in at a pitiful 49mph. There’s still plenty of debate over whether that particular test – which hasn’t been done for very long and isn’t even listed alongside the likes of the 40 and bench press on most lists of Combine testing results – actually means very much, but it would not be remotely surprising if the Cleveland Browns greenlit the Texans’ trade offer (which they had to know was for Watson) precisely because that radar number was a red flag for that analytics-driven front office. Of course, Cleveland play outdoors in a city with biting winters, which makes arm strength a more important criterion than it is for the Texans with their subtropical location and retractable-roof home.
(For what it’s worth, Watson was 13-of-23 for 252 yards, two TDs, and no picks on third down with 11+ to go last year, though he was less impressive in the same situations in prior years. Small sample size, though.)
The biggest concern about Watson’s pro prospects? Probably his ball security. He threw 17 interceptions in 2016, and another 13 in 2015. Trubisky threw only six in his breakout 2016 campaign, which might explain how he rose to the top of this QB class. Turnover-prone collegiate QBs turn into turnover-prone pro QBs – Matt Ryan (19 picks in his final college season) the closest thing to a notable counter-example, and even he has had three separate NFL seasons where he’s averaged an interception per game – and that has to be a worry for a Texans team whose best route to glory is to win in time of possession with the help of turnovers forced by the J.J. Watt-Jadeveon Clowney combination up front.
The Verdict: Make no mistake about it, this was a desperation pick, and should be considered part of the cost of the horrendous swing and miss on Brock Osweiler. The Texans have had to give up both of their first two picks next year in the process of trying to fix that mess – well done to Cleveland for snatching both of those, as they continue to brilliantly use their own QB void as a weapon against other, less patient QB-needy teams – and their “solution” is a turnover-prone guy out of a spread offense.
But the Texans didn’t just need a QB, they needed a winner. When you’re a team in the thick of the bunch behind the Patriots in the AFC, you need someone who can shine when the lights are brightest, who can rise to the big occasion and face the challenge of the best opposition by stepping up in response. Few players in the history of college football have checked that box as comprehensively as this man.
Trading up for Deshaun Watson wasn’t the mistake. Getting into the position where they felt the need to trade up for Deshaun Watson was the mistake. This pick in a vacuum deserves a somewhat generous grade – with the context that the Osweiler acquisition (and its prelude, taking Xavier Su’a-Filo instead of Derek Carr at the top of the second round in 2014) must be considered part of the pantheon of all-time NFL wonder blunders.